Following six-and-a-half hours of public comment, the California Public Utilities Commission decided this evening to give both Cruise and Waymo unfettered access to San Francisco streets for their driverless cars.
As a result, the city could see hundreds or even thousands more self-driving cars picking up and dropping off fee-paying passengers.
With Commissioner Karen Douglas’ absence today, four commissioners took part in the voting. This included Commissioner John Reynolds — who has been through the revolving door twice, first serving at the CPUC from 2013 to 2019, then becoming Cruise’s legal counsel from 2019 to 2021, then rejoining the CPUC in 2022. He did not recuse himself from the vote.
The commission voted 3-1 in two votes, one for Waymo and one for Cruise. Commissioner Genevieve Shirona was the lone holdout, saying she wanted Cruise and Waymo to offer specific information about how they would prevent their driverless cars from interfering in emergency scenes.
“I ask the commission not to vote on the resolution today,” Shirona said, asking that the vote be delayed another three months, to November 1.
Her concerns followed testimony on Monday from top representatives of both police officers and firefighters in San Francisco, who had reiterated their view that the autonomous vehicles were “not ready for prime time.” The San Francisco Fire Department has, in the last year and a half, logged 55 “unusual occurrences” of self-driving cars interfering with fire equipment of fire personnel, moving abruptly or almost hitting fire hoses and firefighters, or blockading fire trucks within fire stations.
During today’s hearing, however, the public testimony was mixed: Groups affiliated with the driverless car companies — wearing yellow “Safety for All” shirts and packing the auditorium — spoke out in favor of the expansion, as did some labor unions.
Others criticized the robo-taxis’ effects on jobs, safety, and accessibility.
A representative with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 6, whose members are likely to gain jobs servicing self-driving car hubs, said, “We call on the CPUC to approve Cruise and Waymo’s application to expand.”
And several members and representatives from SEIU Local 87, which represents janitorial workers, said the expansion of autonomous cars would “bring a new era of jobs.”
Both the IBEW Local 6 and SEIU Local 87 have signed labor-union agreements with Cruise as of Thursday, saying in a press release that the company will employ “dozens of workers who will construct and staff Cruise’s car-charging facilities.”
Many more unions, however, spoke out against the expansion, including, SEIU 1021, Teamsters and the California Labor Federation. It’s “affecting the livelihood of millions of American families,” they said in a joint statement.
The California Labor Federation, San Francisco Labor Council, other regional labor councils and around a dozen unions sent a letter to the CPUC on Wednesday, decrying the use of “automation and artificial intelligence to replace and de-skill workers.” The unions urged the state body to postpone the vote until it can gather more safety evidence and there is “a better understanding of the displacement of workers that will result.”
Some members of the public commented on Reynolds’s work at Cruise, too — but the commissioner defended his actions.
Reynolds said he had recused himself from autonomous vehicle votes for the first year following his stint at the company, but was now using his “familiarity with this emerging technology” to make decisions. He accused opponents of autonomous vehicles of using “anecdotal data analysis lacking sufficient rigor.”
Bob Stern, who co-wrote the Political Reform Act of 1974, said in an interview that Reynolds was indeed legally in the clear; the prohibition against him voting lasted just one year, he said.
The vote follows a months-long delay, during which several San Francisco officials and groups have urged the state body to pump its brakes on the rollout: The entirety of the Board of Supervisors opposes the expansion, city transportation and planning officials sent a letter to the CPUC imploring it to limit the planned rollout, and taxi drivers have frequently protested the expansion of the robotaxis as a threat to their livelihoods.
The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency has logged 600 incidents involving autonomous cars since June 2022, when self-driving tests started in San Francisco, involving unexpected stops or other traffic disruptions.
It will likely herald a massive expansion of self-driving cars on San Francisco streets: Cruise’s CEO said on a July 25 earnings call that the city could handle “several thousand” Cruise vehicles on its streets — an expansion of perhaps tenfold or more from its current total of 303 Cruise cars permitted to operate in San Francisco.
Waymo did not outline an expansion plan beyond saying it would grow “in a very measured way” from its 250 cars in San Francisco today.
The Vote: 3-1
For: Alice Reynolds, Darcie L. Houck, John Reynolds
Against: Genevieve Shiroma
Additional reporting by Joe Eskenazi.